by Steven B. Cowan

The Old Testament (OT) is filled with warfare.  Some of the OT wars are waged by pagan nations such as Assyria and Babylonia.  Some are waged by the Israelites, God’s chosen people.  It is the latter that concern us in this article.  Advocates of the Just War Theory hold that some wars are morally justifiable and some are not. The Just War Theory (JWT) lays out the criteria for telling the difference.[1]  The question before us is whether or not the wars in the OT waged by God’s people meet the criteria for a just war.  This brief discussion will suggest that they do.


Wars in the Old Testament

The first war recorded in the Bible is found in Genesis 14.  There we are told about the invasion of Canaan by four “Northern” kings.  In the conflict, Abram’s nephew Lot was captured.  Abram, with 318 armed men, pursued Lot’s captors, defeated them, and rescued Lot.

The Book of Joshua records Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land after their exodus from Egypt.  In significant detail, this book describes the destruction by Israel of Canaanite strongholds such as Jericho, Ai, Hazor, and others.  In these battles, many of the conquered cities were placed under the “ban,” meaning that all their inhabitants—men, women, and children—were put to the sword (cf. Josh. 6:15-21; 8:24-29; 11:1—15).  This, of course, raises serious questions from the standpoint of JWT.

The Book of Judges also relates numerous wars and battles that the fledgling Hebrew nation fought with local countries such as the Moabites (Judges 3:12-30), the Midianites (6-7), the Ammonites (11: 4-33), and the Philistines (13-16).  In all of theses wars, the Israelites were struggling to survive under the oppression of foreign powers.  As such, there would be little concern with them from the standpoint of JWT.

The lengthy narratives of 1Samuel through 2 Chronicles describe many wars fought by the kings of Israel and Judah.  Many of these wars were waged by wicked Israelite and Judahite rulers, and there would be no problem biblically if these wars turned out to be unjust because one need not see these wars as endorsed by God.  Of more concern are the wars waged by the godly kings of Israel and Judah under God’s direction or endorsement—for example, David’s battle against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 30), his war with the Philistines (2 Sam. 5:17-25), and others (cf. 2 Sam. 8:1-14); and Hezekiah’s war with Assyria (2 Kings 18:13-19:37).


The Old Testament and Just War Theory

We do not have the space to give a detailed assessment of each and every war in the OT, but suffice it to say that the OT does broadly endorse just-war thinking.  This may be seen, first of all, in the Israelites’ concern for justice in international affairs and their belief that nations had the right of self-defense against unjust aggression (cf. Deut. 33:7; 2 Chron. 11:1-12; Obad. 10-14; Hab. 2:6-17).  One should also consider that aside from the initial conquest of Canaan, Israel never embarked on wars of conquest against peaceful neighbors.

An important biblical text in this regard is found in Deuteronomy 20:

“When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace.  If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your )forced labor and shall serve you.  However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it.  When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword.  Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you.  Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby. . .

“. . .When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?  Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.” (vv. 10-15, 19-20)

This text exhibits several characteristics of JWT.  First, note that it comes in the overall context of what Israel is to do when she goes out to “war against your enemies” (v. 1).  These commands thus presuppose that a context of enmity already exists.  There is no suggestion here that war is to be initiated by Israel.

Second, combat and the bloodshed that accompanies it are to be avoided if possible (vv. 10-11).  A peaceful, non-violent resolution to national disputes is to be preferred.

Third, non-combatant immunity was to be observed (v. 14).  Women and children were to be spared; only military-age men were to be killed (v. 13).

Fourth, the ability of the enemy’s land to produce food was to be preserved (vv. 19-20).  A scorched-earth policy was forbidden, presumably so that the enemy nation, once defeated, could still sustain its citizens.

Of course, there are some potential trouble spots here.  One is that all the military-age men were to be killed.  One may presume that this included those who may have surrendered.  However, it should be kept in mind that there was no real ability in the ancient world to deal with prisoners of war, and any living males who could fight would continue to pose a military threat.  Executing the soldiers of an aggressor nation may have been the only just and prudent course for securing a lasting peace.

Another concern is the fact that the women and children of the conquered city were to be taken as spoil by the victorious Israelites.  But, again, this may have been the only humane course since the women and children, once bereft of their men, would otherwise be left destitute.

One other possible concern is the apparent enslavement of the enemy as the result of a peaceful resolution (v. 11).  This is not a significant problem, however, as long as one considers that the conquered nation was an unjust aggressor and that indentured servitude may be, in some contexts, a just penalty for crimes against others.

So, we see in this text that God lays down laws for the conduct of warfare that are consistent with just-war principles.  There is, however, the difficult question of the “ban” that we mentioned earlier.


Just War Theory and the Ban

When dealing with the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, the Israelites seemed to violate just-war principles—and they did so apparently under orders from God himself.  As we saw earlier, the Israelites slaughtered the entire populations of many Canaanite cities.  In fact, the passage that we discussed in the last section which spelled out “just war” principles, gives this explanation:

“Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.  But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God” (vv. 16-18).

So, generally, Israel was to wage war according to the JWT. But, the Canaanite cities of the Promised Land were the exception to the rule.  What accounts for this exception?  Is the exception justifiable?  The answer is yes.  Consider the rationale given in the text above:  “so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.”  One rationale for the ban, then, was to prevent these wicked people from leading God’s people into idolatry.  God desired to keep the Israelites pure and holy, and the evil influence of the Canaanites in their midst would have made that impossible.  Another rationale is provided elsewhere:

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.  Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.  But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.  You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Gen. 15:12-16)

 Here we are told that God would not bring Abraham’s descendants into the land of promise four hundred years.  Why?  Because the sin of the Amorites (i.e., Canaanites) was not yet full.  The idea here is that God was giving the Canaanites time to repent of their sins—but, of course, he knew they wouldn’t.  So, when their sin had reached its full measure, the Israelites would be brought in to bring God’s judgment upon them.  So, when Israel destroyed the Canaanites, they were executing God’s death sentence on them for their sin.

Of course, these points make sense here only if one keeps in mind that Israel was a true theocracy.[2]  She was a nation (the only nation) ruled directly by God.  And for that reason Israel is the only nation who could make any justifiable exceptions to the usual just-war principles.  In other words, by recognizing Israel’s status as a theocracy, we can actually see that the ban on the Canaanites was just.  The ban was not, strictly speaking, a just war (according to JWT), but it was a just act because Israel, in that case, was acting as God’s executioner, bringing God’s judgment on wicked that he did not want to lead his people astray.

God is the holy creator of the universe.  As such, he is the righteous judge of each one of us.  All human beings are sinners who deserve God’s eternal wrath.  God, therefore, has the right to execute the death penalty on any one of us when and as he sees fit.  It just so happens that, for reasons stated above, God chose not to be as merciful to the Canaanites as he is to you and me.

But, what about the children killed under the ban?  Were they being punished for their sins?  Perhaps.  The Bible is very clear that human beings are born sinners from the time of our conceptions (Ps. 51:5; Eph. 2:3).  There is no such thing as an innocent human being (except for Jesus).  In any case, we must also recognize that life is a gift from God.  The right to life in this world is not absolute from God’s perspective.  He can give life and take life as he pleases without sin because our lives belong to him (cf. Job 1:21).  Even if the deaths of the Canaanite children were not the consequence of sin, it would not be unjust for God to take their lives as long as they are justly treated in the afterlife—and there is biblical reason to think that children who die are given the grace of eternal life (cf. 2 Sam. 12:23; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12-13).

In conclusion, we may affirm that the principles laid out in the OT for the conduct of war reflect the tried and true principles of JWT.

Steven B. Cowan is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southeastern Bible College, Birmingham, Alabama. 

This article was originally published in the Areopagus Journal: War What is it good for? Vol. 6 No. 6





[1] For an elaboration of the criteria of a just war according to JWT, see the article in this issue of Areopagus Journal by J. Daryl Charles, “War and Peace and Political Wisdom” (pp. 5-15).

[2] I include the adjective “true” here to emphasize that Israel not only claimed to be a theocracy, she actually was a theocracy.  God literally ruled over her; here government was a divine government.